Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.
1 John 5:21 | NIV | Other Versions | Context
It is a strange way to end a book, isn’t it? Dear children, keep yourselves from idols. No further elaboration. No further description. No further supporting statements. Just – Dear children, keep yourselves from idols. It wasn’t like there’s a clear and consistent link between this verse and the few verses before it. It wasn’t like this passage, or this chapter, was about idolatry either. This was the last line of the chapter, last line of the book, last line of the letter. It was almost like an afterthought, in this chapter about God’s sovereignty. Well, yeah, not entirely unrelated, but still abrupt enough for me. It was very much like a last reminder, as a final plea – keep yourselves from idols. In this study, we will examine what are the idols that John was speaking of.
Idols with a form – This may not apply to some Christians, even if they were not born in Christian families and were not Christians till they decided to be one. I’m Asian, and where I live there are a lot of idols with a form. And when I say a lot, it’s truly a frightening amount. It’s really nothing to do with how advanced the country is. While you won’t quite see idols in the Central Business District, just head to the heartlands, the residential areas, and you’ll probably see an altar of an idol every other street. These are very common in coffeeshops, and even commercial shops. Statues, drawings of the likeness of a god which people worship and offer incense to. I grew up in a culture like that, even though I’m born in a Christian family, and while I can be very confident that I will never worship these idols – idols with forms – since I’ve never once done so before even if I’m to some extent surrounded by them. I can even be rather confident for my Christians friends around me, some of whom once worshipped these idols but stopped doing so after believing in Christ [1 Thes 1:9] – I can be confident for them that they will not go back to worshipping these idols, generally.
Not that all of them wouldn’t, of course, but the greater temptation lies not in these idols with forms – ‘gods’ whom, much like the golden calf that Aaron created for the restless Israelites who wanted a visual representation of the Lord; gods who are not alive, gods who are created by men and not the creator of men. No, I can see most of us being able to resist the temptation to worship these idols with form, but the greater temptation really lies in the formless idols.
Idols without a form – What are these idols? In trying to simplify the idea so that I could understand him better, a pastor once explained to me, try thinking of the things that you cannot live without. These are your idols. Well, I call them formless idols, but some of these may have a form – could be your lucky pen that you must bring with you everytime you sign a contract. Could be your games. Could be your son. Could be your work. Could be your credentials and your qualifications. Could be your sight. Could be your aspirations. Basically, just about anything at all – whether good or bad – anything that overtakes the place of God in your heart. When something becomes more important than God to you, that something becomes your idol.
I tried thinking about what I cannot live without. Back then, my answer was my pride – I was a very proud person – I still am today; humility is something that I have to constantly drill into my entire consciousness – I’m so conscious about my lack of humility that at times it suffocates me because I know God opposes the proud and I honestly don’t want that. Take away my pride and I don’t know what I have left, back then. Kinda sounds awkward no? My idol is my pride. But that’s just an example. The key to combating formless idolatry is really about prioritizing.
How high is God in your list? How much do you love God? Well, if you find these questions hard, then try thinking about a previous question reversely. What will happen God is taken away from your life? Are you able to live without God in your life? Are you able to cope without God in your life? I personally feel that it’s a very scary prospect – but I am a second generation Christian, and I cannot remember a time when God has been away from my life. God has always been in my life. Sure, at times I’ve turned away from God. At times it seems like the Lord is sleeping. But by and large, God has always been in my life – and that’s a blessing. Using the KJV version just for old times’ sake, thou shalt have no other gods before me [Exodus 20:3]. If God is not in your life, how would life be like for you?
When John said, dear children, keep yourselves from idols, he said it almost as an afterthought. Almost as a final plea. The Israelites do have a history of turning to foreign gods and idols. That same reminder applies to us today, whether in terms of idols with a form, or in terms of idols without a form. We do have reasons to keep away from idols – because God is sovereign. We only need God. Quoting from another apostle, Paul, let’s flee from idolatry [1 Cor 10:14].
On top of keeping away, let’s run away from idolatry. Flee.